STEM Activity: An Engineering Design Challenge for Your Troop Meeting

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We all know the best part of being in a troop or scouting is the hands-on delivery method that troop leaders employ to engage the girls in activities–from building catapults to creating business plans to making slime, our girls are always elbows deep in something and all smiles because of it! Now that we have gone virtual with our troop meetings it’s important that we get creative to keep our girls engaged and STEM-focused. Today, we’ll be reviewing some tips for engaging your girls in a virtual engineering design challenge. I hope sometime soon we are back to meeting in person. When that happens this challenge will work for in person meetings as well. 

What is an engineering design challenge?

An engineering design challenge is a challenge designed to get participants–in this case, your girls–to use the engineering design process as a means of delving into critical thinking.

There are seven steps in the engineering design process: defining the problem, doing the background research, specifying requirements, brainstorming, developing a prototype, testing solutions, and communicating results. As you can see, this is quite the process. It’s more than fair to expect that you will need to truncate these, or remove certain steps, in order to make this more accessible for your girls.

What kinds of engineering design challenges exist?

There are a variety of strong engineering challenges that can be completed remotely, from an egg drop to creating a paper airplane launcher. Today, we’ll be discussing the steps to have your girls complete a remote aluminum foil boat.

Step 1: Define the Problem

In this challenge, students need to use a single sheet of tin foil to create the sturdiest boat they can create. The more weight the boat can hold while remaining afloat, the better! 

You will likely want to clarify to the girls that the boat must be self-supporting (no pool noodles underneath!). Additionally, we recommend clarifying upfront where the girls are allowed to test. Will they be floating their boat in a tupperware container? In the kitchen sink? In a bathtub? Ensure they know where to test and that proper supervision will be available depending on the age of the girls involved.

Step 2: Research

Next, you’ll want to research! Use this to develop their science knowledge. Consider sharing your screen and playing a video on the Archimedes Principle, the principle that governs why boats float. You can extend your discussion by talking about density.

Ask your girls if they have ever been on a boat and have them share relevant experiences. What did they notice about the boat? Why do they think it remained afloat?

Step 3: Specify Requirements

This is where we complete that last-minute check for understanding. Let the girls know that they will be building with tin foil–that’s it. Let them know that the boat must float in water–taping it on top of a water bottle will not count. (Trust me folks, I’ve seen it all!)

Step 4: Brainstorm

Brainstorming is one of the most important steps in the engineering design process. This prevents your girls from immediately running amok to create their invention. At this time, clarify the expectations, ask each girl to grab a piece of paper and a pencil, mute the microphones, and ask your girls to spend ten minutes drawing their very best tin foil boat. 

Consider screen sharing a digital timer during this time. Particularly if you have girls with behavioral challenges or anxiety, knowing how much time they have left in a given activity can ensure that they remain stress-free and self-managed during this time. Refrain from offering feedback during this time–let your girls brainstorm their wildest ideas and test them later! The more they try and trip, the more they will learn to get back up again. 

Step 5: Develop a Prototype

This is the moment your girls have been waiting for! Agree upon a time that they will come back together, or a signal that will get their attention, and set them loose! Remind them that they should be using their brainstorming drawings as blueprints for their prototypes. If they decide to make changes, they will need to add the changes to their drawings, in order to ensure they have their final model recorded. 

Step 6: Test 

This part can be a little tricky. Your girls will need to test their environment. If you have strong parent involvement, this is the part of the meeting where you text your parents and ask them to join you. They can support you by bringing a large bucket of water to the table (and moving their laptops far away!) 

Let your girls test their invention and slowly add weight. Remind them to write down their observations so that they will be prepared to share them with the team later on! 

Step 7: Communicate Results

This is how you will close your meeting. Direct your girls to empty their water buckets, clean their area, and settle back down. Consider doing a moment of deep breathing to reinvest them in the task at hand.

Go “around” your Zoom call and ask each girl to share their prototype and let the group know how they did. If time permits, consider giving them time to adjust their prototypes for future use. End by asking the girls to share “glows” and “grows,” that is, what did they do well during this project and what could they have done better?

Virtual Troop Meetings Can Still be as Exciting as Ever

Don’t be afraid to run virtual meetings! Your girls will be thrilled to see your face, as well as the face of their teammates. Feel free to offer yourself and your girls grace as you navigate this new roadblock. Additionally, remember–if you’re having fun, and the girls are learning, the mission has already been accomplished! 

I want to thank Kaitlin Anselmo for writing these ideas for all of you. She is a contributing author at STEM Toy Expert and has Girl Scouts experience, having led troops of underprivileged girls for three years. Her foremost experience is in education (K-10), where she loves trying out new STEM toys, activities and experiments with her students!

Do you need more virtual meeting ideas? Check out these 50 Fun Games and Activities to Try at Your Virtual Troop Meetings.

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Enjoy every minute being a leader and continue to inspire your girls!

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My name is Jodi Carlson, I am a mom, wife, & web designer and come with 25 years of GS experience. I am now sharing my experiences and helping other Girl leaders be great and successful and shape today’s girls to be the leaders of tomorrow. I was blessed with a Son in March of 2015 and stepped down as a full time girl leader, but missed planning and volunteering, so I decided after 25 years I have so many ideas to inspire girls and help leaders so I choose to build this blog and it has grown into a resource beyond GS, I am reaching girl leaders in many organizations.